Cremation, Society, and Landscape in the North Aegean, 6000-700 BCE
This research project examines the appearance and proliferation of some of the earliest cremation burials in Europe in the context of the prehistoric north Aegean. Using archaeological and osteological evidence from the region between the Pindos mountains and Evros river in northern Greece, this study examines the formation of death rituals, the role of landscape in the emergence of cemeteries, and expressions of social identities against the backdrop of diachronic change and synchronic variation. I draw on a rich and diverse record of mortuary practices to examine the co-existence of cremation and inhumation rites from the beginnings of farming in the Neolithic period to the adoption of the Greek alphabet by the eighth century BCE or earlier. Based on my review of the evidence, I also offer suggestions regarding: 1) why cremation is adopted so early in the Neolithic north Aegean, and essentially nowhere else in contemporary southeast Europe and the Near East; 2) why cremation perseveres and re-emerges as a popular burial rite in the Early Iron Age in this region; and 3) whether cremation endured in this region in association with kinship-based states attested in the region later in antiquity, or on the basis of social status, gender, age, or personal preference.
The burial record of the north Aegean over 5,000 years is marked by a high degree of synchronic and diachronic diversity in funerary ritual, grave types, grave objects, and location choice, which reflect pluralistic approaches to death. The rite of cremation especially was a complex phenomenon not limited to one tomb type or region through time, appearing both in cremation-exclusive cemeteries and in isolated tombs within inhumation-dominant burial grounds. I suggest that cremation was adopted early in the Neolithic for two reasons. The first reason, relating to individual infant cremations discovered in intramural contexts, is due to infants not reaching a critical rite of passage. The second reason for adoption, relating to the cremation-exclusive burial grounds, is to dissolve the individuality of the deceased and promote community collectivity.
The reinforcement of group identity and communality is, I argue, applicable as an explanatory framework for why cremation perseveres in certain EBA communities. At EBA cemeteries where cremation was a minority rite, however, infants and children tended to be cremated, a continuation of a practice established in a select few Neolithic communities and perhaps also related to an early, tragic death and a failure to reach a critical rite of passage. By the LBA, cremation burials reach their lowest numbers throughout the prehistoric period. The few individuals who are cremated are adults and may have held special status in their communities. The preponderance of cremation burials in stone-built tumuli in the Rhodope region of east Macedonia and Thrake indicates that people in the region may have begun to associate with group identities beyond the immediate community.
Cremation increases in popularity during the EIA, alongside a massive increase in the number of cemeteries and an expansion of their overall extent, reflecting diverse approaches to death. Cemeteries with cremations include a) cemeteries with a majority of cremations and b) cemeteries with a minority of cremations (1 – 6% of graves). Beginning with the former group, many cemeteries that are exclusively comprised of cremations are located east of the Strymon river. With a tradition going back to the LBA, stone-built tumuli that are associated with cremations in east Macedonia and Thrake could be indicative of a broader community and sense of group identity (or identities). In Chalkidiki, cremation was the exclusive or dominant rite at nearly all cemeteries. Palaiogynaikokastro in central Macedonia was exceptional in its hundreds of cremations in a region dominated by inhumations, while also incorporating elite grave goods found in inhumation graves. Through burning the dead, the residents of Palaiogynaikokastro differentiated themselves from their neighbors in the Axios valley, while participating in settlement hierarchies and territorial antagonisms that may have characterized the fertile valley during this time. These cases suggest the mobilization of different communities adopting similar burial rituals, integrating and defining themselves within a broader social – perhaps also political – group.
As for EIA cemeteries where cremation is the minority rite, the circumstances and contexts vary from site to site. At certain sites, only infants and children were cremated, while at other cemeteries, cremations occurred either at earlier or later periods than the inhumations. Although difficult to prove, it may also be possible that some cremations may have been a personal choice on the part of the deceased and their family, or a marker of an individual who had migrated to a region away from their place of birth and wanted to replicate the death rituals of their homeland. Overall, however, gender does not appear to play a large role in determining who was cremated and who was inhumed. The north Aegean is thus marked by a highly diverse mortuary record in a micro-regional, highly fragmented point of confluence that gradually grew from small communities of farmers to tribal, kinship-based states.